Places that Matter
ABC No Rio
Place Matters Profile
Written by Molly Garfinkel
One block north of the hustling, bustling, horn-honking, take-your-life-into-your-own-hands fracas that is Delancey Street at the foot of the Williamsburg Bridge, the intersection of Suffolk and Rivington Streets provides residents and passers-by with the slow motion refuge of overlapping one-way streets. For those who are inclined to look up or even stop, the crossroad also offers a lesson in Lower Manhattan’s cultural history. Streits’ Matzos, the venerable, fourth generation, family-owned matzo factory and storefront anchors the northeast corner in four converted tenements. On the southwest side stands the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural and Educational Center, a trailblazing, multi-cultural arts incubator and performance space housed in an elegant CBJ Snyder-designed school building. A ubiquitous corner deli holds down the southeast edge, while kitty corner, students show off their skills in a paved schoolyard. With representation from the realms of housing, recreation, education, manufacturing, fine arts and small enterprise, this junction is the Lower East Side at its living, breathing, vernacular finest. While much in the area has changed in the last few decades, the spaces and activities surrounding this intersection are a useful reminder of what has helped to sustain this neighborhood and keep it distinctive.
If you venture just a bit further east along Rivington, you will encounter a space that continues to embody another important LES tradition – grassroots collective action. Permanently festooned with graffiti, and frequently guarded by a legion of parked fixed-gear bikes, ABC No Rio is a 34 year-old artists’ space featuring a gallery, screen-printing studio, 'zine library, darkroom, and public computer lab.
No Rio has occupied the four-story tenement at 156 Rivington for decades, but its roots go back to the seminal “Real Estate Show” held at 123 Delancey Street on New Year’s Eve, 1979. On December 30, 1979, 35 artists from the Collaborative Projects (Colab) collective broke into what was then an abandoned, city-owned factory. The artists cleared out the trash, fixed the pipes, and installed a politically charged, multimedia exhibition titled “The Real Estate Show.” The exhibition was developed in response to the bitter economic conditions facing tenants in late 1970s New York, and it was dedicated to Elizabeth Magnum, a middle-aged African American woman killed the previous year while resisting eviction in Flatbush. The Real Estate Show Manifesto declared, “It is important to show that people are not helpless – they can express their resentment with things-as-they-are in a way that is constructive, exemplary, and interesting.” Participating artists engaged issues ranging from arson to local alternate energy proposals to media blackout over rampant disinvestment in low-income neighborhoods.
The Real Estate Show soft-opened on December 31, 1979 and opened to the public on New Year's Day. By January 2, the Department of Housing, Preservation and Development (HPD) had padlocked 123 Delancey Street from the inside. As The East Village Eye’s Lehmann Weichselbaum noted, “[the show’s] basic ideological premise – that artists, working people, and the poor are systematically screwed out of decent places to exist in – could not have been brought home with more brutal irony.” At the time, HPD claimed that the site was slated for demolition in nine months to create room for low-income housing, a shopping mall and a senior center. [As of May 2014, the Delancey site is a still-dormant part of the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA), and is now slated for redevelopment as part of Essex Crossing. Its projected use in Essex Crossing is 50/50 market rate and affordable rental housing, and a movie theater.]
After extensive negotiations, the city granted Colab access to the tenement at 156 Rivington Street, which the artists named "ABC No Rio" after the remanants of a vandalized placard announcing the building's former occupants: “Abogado Con Notario” (Lawyer with Notary Public). The victory was semi-sweet as the dilapidated building required extensive spot repairs and vigilant eyes to keep drug dealers and consumers from breaking in. Despite the obstacles, No Rio slowly came to life with exhibitions and events, and the founders set the standard for policies that are still in place: shows were often thematic, un-curated, and invitations to participate were open to all. For group exhibitions, wall space was, and usually still is, first-come, first-served. Between installations, the gallery operated as a workshop and meeting space for artists and activists to share skills, knowledge and resources.
Though it hasn’t always been easy, Rivington Street’s “collection of collectives” still strives to uphold its founders’ idealism and egalitarianism. “In some respects, I think that’s why we get a lot of support,” says Steven Englander, ABC No Rio’s administrator and sole employee. “It’s because we haven’t changed what we represent in 30-plus years. We’re still here, and the mission and purposed of the institution remains the same. We stand out, so to speak.”
In the mid-'80s, No Rio was one in a nexus of downtown nightclubs, incorporated non-profits, and tiny, alternative art spaces hosting activist-oriented performance art. Sister sites like the Pyramid Club mounted events that regularly addressed sexuality and gender norms, and shows at No Rio dealt with squatters’ rights, land use and gentrification. Englander came to No Rio in the early '90s as an audience member for Matthew Courtney’s Wide Open Cabaret, something of an open mic and theatrical event that included cognitive poetry as well as story telling. Then a writer and filmmaker, Englander was drawn to the local art scene’s collectivism. "I actually came by to see what was going on because there was a lot of foment and heightened tension in the neighborhood. And because of Matthew Courtney. It was his charisma and personality. The show had a really good vibe, and it was a really welcoming, open type of thing.”
Englander got involved with ABC No Rio in the mid-'90s, and even lived upstairs for a year and a half while helmsman Lou Acierno was out of the country. By then the space’s signature events had shifted from Colab’s visual arts exhibitions to performance art to theatricals to punk shows. But one thing that remained the same was the organization’s contentious relationship with the city, which immediately regretted its decision to allow Colab into 156 Rivington. The constant, dissonant drone of legal struggles, court cases, and threats of eviction persistently threatened to cancel out No Rio’s busy hum.
By the time Englander came on board, the collective had negotiated a stipulation settlement with the city allowing them to use the property as a gallery and performance space. But in 1994, the punks, who had also taken the lead on No Rio’s administrative tasks, got the feeling that the city wasn’t going to honor its end of the stipulation. Englander recalls. “What made them think that? Well, the city stopped accepting the rent checks. When your landlord stops accepting your rent checks, that’s a good hint that they’re about to evict you.” The punks invited a handful of friends to occupy the upper floors and defend the building in the event of a physical eviction. Englander was one of them. “I was invited because in the past I had actually helped people open up buildings. I’d done some political organizing, and had a background in ABC No Rio and all of the personalities involved. I was in my mid-30s and living there with a bunch of 19- and 20-year olds, sneaking around the building and trying to get the boiler to work again. You know, the city had actually ripped out some of the plumbing in its abandoned houses so that they couldn’t be used! But fortunately for us, there actually was a boiler.” The group repaired damaged appliances, installed plumbing infrastructure and guarded the site in case the city tried to padlocked it from the inside.
In 1995, the authorities formally attempted to evict ABC No Rio and its occupants, but after two years of bitter fighting, No Rio was given the opportunity to acquire the property for one dollar. The agreement came with several conditions, the first being that the squatters permanently vacate. Englander remembers that this was a tense time for the collective. The squatters were given nine months to leave, but it took another three years to get everyone to go of their own accord. “There was some conflict, and even I was accused of being a sell-out because we were making the squatters willingly vacate. The city was not going to unconditionally surrender to ABC No Rio, and there was no way we would have been able to work out something without compromise. And part of the compromise was that we solve part of the squatter problem ourselves. If you remember from the beginning part of our story, we were invited in to defend ABC No Rio. Unlike other squatted buildings, the reason for that initial action wasn’t to make housing for these people long term.”
Squatting was a common conversation topic at the time. ABC No Rio had been intimately involved with the squatters’ right movement prior to the compromise, and had even hosted eviction-watch meetings on site. Englander is adamant that the squats in 156 Rivington had been a tactic in the larger strategy of defending the building, but he admits that asking the participants to vacate confused many of the associated activists. “It wasn’t clear to them what was ethically right thing to do in this circumstance. So I reminded people that this opportunity only exists because you were here to defend it. Now that that job is done, it’s time for the real challenges.”
As part of the compromise with the city, No Rio also agreed to raise money to bring the building up to code, and to dedicate the space to community use. “Everyone had a big what-are-we-going-to-do-now moment.” Ensuing conversations included ABC No Rio members, colleagues who had helped in the multi-year struggle for control of the space, friends who participated in direct action, and others who had contributed legal expertise to the campaign. Anyone who had a vested interest was invited to help figure out how to move No Rio forward.
In 2006, ABC No Rio acquired the title to 156 Rivington. They are now an incorporated non-profit with a board of directors, but they still aim for the flattest administrative model possible. “We really tried to figure out how we could make it as non-hierarchical as we could. When we got together to start planning, we had to figure out how we were going to structure this and still remain collective. And we wanted to do it in a way where everybody didn’t have to weigh in on every process and decision.”
Ultimately the group decided to give each project or program maximum autonomy within the framework of the organization. Every program is run by a collective or committee, and ABC No Rio is the collection of those collectives. There are no program directors; rather, each program director is also the staff of their own program. Some collectives are small. In 2014, only two people run and staff the screen printing shop, four oversee the darkroom, and four run the ‘zine library. According to Englander, program groups are tight-knit. They have to be, because the facilities are small and the work is demanding. “We’re not a collective where people can come in and be involved in the policy without actually doing the labor. We’re sort of a syndicate in that way -- the decisions are actually made by the people working on the things day by day. “
Since gaining control of 156 Rivington, ABC No Rio has implemented five long-term community arts programs. The screen-printing shop came first because, according to Englander, “it’s the easiest to do. Right now there’s some teenager screen-printing in his mom’s kitchen, driving her crazy cause there’s ink all over the sink. So it was the easiest to start, and people were involved who had actually done screen- printing and teaching before.” Screen-printing is a fairly adaptable medium that translates equally well to t-shirt, canvas, posters, and other propagandistic ephemera. It appeals to young musicians making t-shirts to promote their bands, and also to fine artists who are drawn to the graphic aesthetic. The print shop is first-come, first-served, and technique is honed through skill share – the staff teaches by assisting new artists with their projects.
Next installed was the ‘zine library. Englander recalls, "there was a ‘zine library in the Bronx, the Black Out ‘Zine Library, in a squat that was about to be evicted. So we were a home in search of a project, and here was a project in search of a home. And there were people here who had a commitment to ‘zine culture, so it just seemed to be the right thing to do.”
The library has grown from the inherited 3,000 ‘zines to over 14,000 items. The collection ranges from travel to feminism to political newsprint, reflecting the interests of the large and diverse corps of volunteers who have helped to build the library over the years. ABC No Rio also accessions items that address local concerns, like the newsletter of the Metropolitan Council on Housing, or The SHADOW, an underground newspaper published in the Lower East Side since 1989. About a dozen times a year, ethnography or anthropology researchers come to use ABC No Rio’s library to investigate subcultures, urban affairs or the history of urbanism. “And then there’s plenty of stuff where some kid gets his hand on a photocopy machine and makes a personal ‘zine that’s about his individual self expression.”
The darkroom was completed third because of the extensive infrastructure necessary to get it going. No Rio needed significantly more time to hustle up equipment like enlargers and sinks, but the demand was there from the beginning. Englander recounts, “during the mid-90s, before digital had taken over photography, there were a bunch of people who were affiliated with the broader photography scene who did a lot of documentary work. This was in the time of indie media actions and civil disobedience and protest events. Photographers wanted to turn around their stuff fast, but didn’t want to have to overnight it, or pay out the wazoo. So we did it for people to have a quick way to access equipment and process materials.” Once they got the darkroom off the ground, No Rio decided on open public hours, and to run the facilities as communal workspace, rather than as a time share, or a photographers’ co-op. “The point of No Rio is to have these interconnections between people, and it does have the social aspect. And though it’s an inconvenience to bump into somebody else while you’re moving your print from developer to fix, part of the point of ABC No Rio is to bump into other people! So we felt that it was more appropriate to structure it in that way.”
ABC No Rio’s darkroom offers five workstations where photographers can process and develop 35mm and medium-format film, and chemistry is provided. Hours vary depending on the volunteers but happily, volunteer retention rate is high across all of the programs. No Rio asks printers, photographers and librarians for a once-per-week commitment for three months, while the facilities collective running the exhibitions program meets half a dozen times per year. Punk show volunteers come every week.
When asked if punk is still No Rio’s trademark, Englander says not necessarily. “There isn’t a signature event. There are so many different things that go on now, and I always use that story about the blind men and the elephant. They’re all tugging on different things. And they think they’ve got a different creature, but really one’s holding the tail, and one’s touching the leg. No Rio is something different to everybody. It’s one thing to a kid from the boroughs, or New Jersey or Long Island, who comes to the punk shows, than it is to a kid who comes from uptown or the Bronx who’s doing graffiti and realizes that the graphic iconography of graffiti actually translates to screen printing, and they come to do screen printing here. And that’s different from what it is to some retired public school teacher who might have come to the poetry readings.”
ABC No Rio’s significance has varied across time and interest groups, but one key element will soon change drastically for all constituencies-- the building. Since acquiring legal rights to the site, No Rio has developed plans to build a custom arts center from scratch. The DIY charm of working ad hoc in an old tenement wore off many years ago, and Englander and the rest of the collective are eager to move forward with their city-approved building designs, created by architect and ABC No Rio affiliate, Paul Castrucci. The new No Rio will have facilities fashioned specifically for the five hallmark programs, including an enhanced computer center with media stations, Mac and Linux machines, and open source tools for video and audio editing. The gallery and performance space will double, and an elevator will make all floors wheelchair-accessible.
The new building will be constructed to the specifications of a sustainable design standard called “passive house.” This involves super-insulating the building and using cutting edge technologies to achieve dramatic energy use reductions. Englander gets a gleam in his eye talking about No Rio's future home. “It’s how you really go about reducing the carbon footprint of the building. And I’m happy to say that a lot of people are really enthusiastic about that aspect of the project, among our supporters in general, and in government.” ABC No Rio received funding from the New York State Energy Research Development Agency for the Passive House Project. Two-thirds of the grant will be used for hard costs and construction, and the other third will go to monitoring, analyzing and reporting how well the building performs. The organization will also take on water management with a green roof designed to slow the rate at which rainwater enters the city’s sewer system, and a partial blue roof that siphons rainwater to basement retention tanks.
No Rio was supposed have begun a two-year exile while waiting for the new building to be finished, but the process has been stalled by outrageously high contractor bids. Assuming that they would be temporarily homeless, the exhibitions collective committed to mounting shows in other venues. No Rio is now in limbo, hosting shows both on and off site. “It’s really frustrating trying to figure out how we can more effectively work with the city and move forward, given the unique circumstances of our project,” Englander says. But when it comes to day to day operations, Englander can rest easy knowing that the collective will rally, perhaps especially in the face of dire circumstances. The added bonus is that volunteers come not for ego or a campaign, but rather because they enjoy doing work that nourishes something bigger, both inside and outside of No Rio’s faded walls. The collectives' programs are stable, even if it feels like the building and plans for it’s future are not.
When completed, ABC No Rio’s sleek new building façade will be just that – a cosmetic alteration. The site's structure will change, but organization's won’t – ABC No Rio will carry forward as a collective and center of radical activism in New York City. They will continue to host to a number of radical New York City projects, including the NYC Food Not Bombs collective, and to serve as community center for the Lower East Side. As long-standing residents will tell you, DIY spaces, so important to the heritage and vitality of the neighborhood, are becoming increasingly rare. Hopefully ABC No Rio and the other community landmarks around Suffolk and Rivington Street can hang on as the drum of gentrification continues to beat in the Lower East Side. If history is any measure, this is a challenge that No Rio has on lock. (May 2014)
On the Web